Ignorance IS bliss, at least when it propels you to an amazing new place. So it was with Ecuador. I know, I know: As travel editor, I'm supposed to be the expert on the more obscure regions of our planet. But when I heard that the highlands of Ecuador are dotted with colonial haciendas converted to exquisite inns where native chefs cook dishes passed down through generations, I cried "Who knew?" And, immediately thereafter, "When can I go?"
I signed up for a weeklong hiking expeditionwith stays in five of those haciendasoffered by the excellent adventure-travel outfit Mountain Travel Sobek. Our first day, my dozen compadres and I traded notes on one of South America's least-explored countries as we ate breakfast on 200-year-old Hacienda La Carriona's terrace, framed by bougainvillea and 10-foot palms. The sum of our collective knowledge was this: Ecuador is half the size of France, was the first Latin American country to attain democracy and means "equator."
It didn't take long to learn more, starting with breakfast. We immediately understood that Ecuadorans are very, very good at the morning meal. The menu would vary little from day to day: just-baked briochelike rolls, eggs any way, homemade quince or papaya preserves, queso fresco, good strong coffee and fruit juice. The last is an exquisite foaming essence of fruit, and not just orange, grapefruit and pineapple, but naranjilla, granadilla and maracuyá. Naranjilla? A tiny, green, pucker-tart orangelike affair. Granadilla? A type of passion fruit that tastes like a tomatillo crossed with a mango. Maracuyá is the more familiar passion fruit, wrinkled, black and pippy. All in all, Ecuador has more fruits than Iowa has cornfields.